The Twitter video, released last August, was retweeted 60,000 times in total. It began with winger Ricardo Quaresma asking center back Pepe to “come to Besiktas” before turning into an animated figure as music played in the background. Pepe agreed to the move, then called striker Alvaro Negredo to ask him do the same before the center back himself turned into an animated character. Negredo also agreed to the move, before turning into an animated character as the video ended.
Described as “brilliantly awful” and “viral nonsense”, the tweet came complete with a #CometoBesiktas hashtag. While at least the skits between Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku to announce Lukaku’s move to Manchester United had a plot and a twist, Besiktas’ videos were born out of social media: they were loud, had no overarching logic or context, and received worldwide attention for not making sense. And it worked: Besiktas were third in growing their Twitter account last year, behind PSG and Manchester City, adding 23.9 million followers.
Yet the noise of social media obscured the quality of the player signings. Pepe, at age 34 and coming off an injury riddled final season at Real Madrid where he played just 18 matches, was the biggest risk but was a symbol of ambition. 31-year-old striker Alvaro Negredo and 30-year-old midfielder Gary Medel each signed for under $3 million. The three signings were past their prime, but were also veterans of Europe’s top leagues. The amount spent over the summer compared to their Champions League group stage counterparts told its own story: Monaco, Porto and Leipzig combined to spend over $220 million. Besiktas, coming off a league title, tallied under $10 million.
The three veterans added depth to the foundation built by 65-year-old manager Şenol Güne. Led by 26-year-old striker Cenk Tosun and 24-year-old midfielder Oguzhan Ozyakup, and aided by dynamic 1-on-1 wingers in Quaresma and Ryan Babel, their first Champions League arrow was slung in the opening matchday with a 3-1 win at Porto. Gunes asserted afterwards that Monaco and Leipzig had to take notice of his side.
Yet their next match, a 2-0 win at home against Leipzig, was the club’s defining European moment thus far. It was not only how they won, with each goal coming off wingers displaying their individual skill in beating their fullback and crossing the ball, but the symbiotic energy between the team and the Vodafone Park crowd on a European night. Whether the noise of the home crowd actually did cause Timo Werner to be subbed off due to dizziness, Leipzig manager Ralph Hasenhuttl admitted that his side were rattled by the home crowd. A 2-1 win away to Monaco in the following match, featuring two goals from Tosun, cleared the path for the side to finish first in the group while conceding just five goals.
Their unbeaten record in the Champions League group stage was a surprise. But led by an ambitious club president, the success on the field and on Twitter was no accident. As Gunes stated in preparing for a Europa League knockout round match last year, “no flower blossoms before it’s ready”.
The success of this current Besiktas side was formed in its lowest point.
Their story resembles Juventus’ rebuild and rise from Serie B relegation to European and global ambition. Like Andrea Agnelli’s role within the Italian club, Besiktas were led by club president Fikret Orman’s singular ambition and drive. The 50-year-old civil engineer, who graduated from University of Florida, became the Turkish club’s 33rd president in 2012. He took over a team $330 million in debt, facing over a hundred lawsuits and suspension from UEFA competitions for match-fixing allegations. Tongue in cheek, Orman admits he was elected president because no one else wanted the role. That side had finished fourth in the league, with the Portuguese trio of Bebe, Fernandes and Quaresma as the biggest foreign names at the club (and perhaps paving a path for Pepe).
Orman’s ambitions drove the club since, culminating into the social media campaign from last summer. The president now acknowledges the initial club debt as a blessing in disguise, forcing the side to build for the future instead of finding short term, high priced fixes in the transfer market. With his 319,000 followers on Instagram, his aim is to develop Besiktas’ global brand with a goal of having 100 million supporters worldwide. A Chinese tour last summer was the first step of international recognition, with a U.S. tour on the horizon. He’s influenced by Chelsea’s model of branding, asking “if Chelsea can have a global reach, why can’t we?”
Then came the new stadium, a physical symbol of European ambition in this modern age. With the club’s identity tied to the Besiktas district, the Vodafone Stadium was built on top of the old stadium. Umut Kutlu, Besiktas’ Chief Marketing Officer, outlined the difficulties of moving 850,000 truckloads of rubble in a street that averages 250,000 cars passing through each day. Similar to Atletico Madrid’s construction of the Wanda Metropolitano, Vodafone Park integrated aspects of the old stadium while taking on a long-term sponsor for financial help.
Currently the sixth biggest soccer league in terms of television earnings, the Turkish Super Lig continues to expand its influence. With TV rights bought by BeIn SPORTS, 2017 is the first season in which the domestic league has been televised outside of the country. Raising the league’s overall brand affects not only in jersey sales but in the transfer window. Tosun is rumored for a move to Everton, Tottenham or Newcastle. In justifying his valuation number on the transfer market, Orman observes that Spanish and English sides were prepared to pay nine figures for the likes of Kylian Mbappe and Naby Keita. He partly attributes their value to the perception of Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga for developing players, while the Super Lig is seen as a league for bargains. He asks a rhetorical question: if Mbappe played for Besiktas, would PSG have still paid over $100 million for the player?
Although as the only Turkish representative in the Champions League round of 16, Besiktas have their own branding fate in their hands with a match against Bayern Munich. National team manager Mircea Lucescu tipped them to beat the German side, while Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic spoke of the difficulty of playing the second leg in Turkey. The support at Vodafone Park already rattled one German side, and progress at the highest stage of the game, in front of a worldwide audience, would expedite Orman’s global vision. Last month, Pepe summoned Cristiano Ronaldo to join the Turkish side. A move for the four time Ballon d’Or winner is not as far fetched as it once would have seemed. From that perspective, Besiktas - or at least the perception of Besiktas - has already won.